Father’s Mandarin name is min, meaning sensitive or alert. He says he was destined to be a light sleeper—even though he turns his window shades the opposite direction as everyone else in the house, he still wakes every morning to the light strolling across his face, tickling his nose. He stumbles out of bed without his glasses like a tortoise searching for its missing shell.
Before he was let go, father always followed the same daily routine. In the morning he would nibble our leftovers, from crusts of garlic bread to the skins meimei peeled off her wontons from the previous evening’s dinner. Regardless of the weather, he donned his heavy black jacket, then waved me and meimei into our mini-van. Father drove almost lying down, with the radio sputtering a scratchy rendition of Butterfly Lovers and seat laid back at a 120-degree angle; meimei liked to kick his seat for taking up so much of her leg room.
Father and I worked in the same building, he in the huge marine bio lab at the end of the second-floor hallway, me in the oncology lab by the second-floor elevator. When I was meimei’s age, father would take me to his lab instead of the aquarium on school holidays. He’d take me to see the giant tanks bustling with turtles and crabs and lobsters and fish of all colors of the rainbow. He’d take me to the imaging room upstairs where the lights were off and the windows were blanketed with black cloth, where I peered through an electron microscope for the first time and saw coccolithophore algae floating around the petri dish like little armored soldiers.
At lunch we ate in the same room at the far end of the second- floor hallway. It was a potpourri of flavors and languages—father’s PI and the three spectacled postdocs from his lab feasted on chilled kimchi while chattering in bright Korean at the table beside the window, the two Indian master’s students from my lab grumbled under their breath, and father and I made small talk in slow English with the PhD student from the downstairs chromatography lab who just arrived from Japan the previous month. There was an elderly Chinese lady who sometimes came by (still gowned in her lab coat) from the neighboring building to microwave her food, staining the air with aromas of salmon and roast duck and ma po tofu. Last March her lab was using pigs as their animal model and, when they were done with the experiment, it took four of us to help her lift the carcass into the back of her van. The following day she came to pass around chunks of roast pork belly and sugar and soy sauce marinated ribs and browned dong po rou bristling with fresh steam.
Father was always the last to leave the lab at night. He’d finish around 6 or 7 and then wait for me to finish, usually around 8. Sometimes when my professor’s office door wasn’t locked father would sit back in the cushioned swivel chair in the empty office and kick his feet up on the desk, pretending to be the CEO of some lucrative company. Occasionally I’d found him perusing the posters plastered over the walls outside my lab, silently mouthing the words to himself like a prayer, tongue stumbling over the hurdles of unfamiliar jargon. Some days he’d pull out a pocket-sized dictionary, faded golden letters spelling Chinese-English Medical Dictionary in both languages adorning the tattered cotton spine of the gray book. Other days, he’d doze off in the lunchroom or on the bench next to mine. Those last hours each night were the sweetest—when it was just the two of us, father’s breath coming deep and slow, the two of us surrounded by the moaning and squeaky exhalation of the incubators.
We’d arrive home when meimei and mother were still finishing their last meal, when they’d finished and mother would be slumped on the couch watching TV while meimei did the dishes, when meimei’d already be tucked in bed and on her second dream. The latest we ever got home was when I had to prepare slides for both my experiments and it was 3 AM by the time I’d finished my staining. Most days when we returned and meimei was still awake, we’d be welcomed home by the thunder of mother’s words. Father would pull up his hood and the words would come trampling over his makeshift carapace, and he’d bow his head as if kowtowing to mother. It was always some variation of why didn’t you come home in time for dinner or why didn’t you help me make the dinner or meimei had to do the dishes again because you two weren’t home. But by then, we were both tired and father would melt into the futon. Meimei joked that father was a pile of mud, his bottom was glued so tightly to the back of the couch.
On weekends we’d all go for runs, and father would always lumber around at the rear, swiping through a journal article on his phone. We were told that he was born in the year of the rabbit but we all believed this must be some mistake, that he must have been born in the year of the turtle.
One day two months ago, I heard loud voices arguing in tinted English at the end of the hallway and I stopped to peek inside father’s lab. Father was silently cleaning out the fridge by the doorway, throwing cartons of old microfuge tubes in the trash, while his Korean professor and a Russian lab tech were going at it, threatening to sue each other. I caught some of the words as they were being dished out: an almost pleading “lost grant” and “not enough funding” morphing into a “and what have you done for me this year” that rattled the walls. That night as I was buckling my seatbelt for the drive home, I caught a glimpse of a brown cardboard box in the back seat.
This summer, one of father’s former students asked him to present on his behalf at an international zoology conference in China. The conference organizers arranged for us to stay at a luxurious hotel in Shanghai, a few train stops away from father’s hometown of Ningbo. As father checks in, meimei fiddles with the porcelain teacups and crystal paperweights in the hotel lobby shop. There are slabs of chicken-blood stone for sale and traditional souvenirs, fans and opera masks and laminated bookmarks of pressed dried butterflies. There is a large restaurant in the main hallway; half a corridor down there is the dining room where the three of us eat breakfast. The morning of the second day, as I drink suan mei tang and father slurps his porridge of rice and sorghum, meimei points out to us the paintings on the dining room wall. It is a mural of sea turtles and jellyfish adrift in a blue background. Behind our table is a giant crocodile, its mouth open to reveal a breakfast of large white eggs. A striped sea snake, its jaws parting in mid-hiss, chases one of the turtles. “That is called a loggerhead sea turtle,” father says to meimei. The loggerhead sea turtle, father explains, is his favorite species of turtle. They are highly protective, not only of their own young, but also of the full ecosystems of barnacles and small fish they shelter within their shells.
That day, we take the train to Ningbo. Father reads a journal he snagged from the waste pile outside my lab, while I read the paper father is scheduled to present. Meimei and I take turns sitting by the window, watching as the squares of ochre and viridian farm- land evaporate into the distance. There are muddy rivers snaking across the land, small villages falling into disrepair like the leftover kindling of old bonfires, and meimei and I listen intently as the train rumbles deep into the belly of many a mountain, the trees so small they look like moss, before emerging on the other side to the splatter of rain against the windowpanes or bright sun scorching our eyes. Meimei buys roast duck from a cart and peels off the crispy skin, leaving me with the bland stringy meat underneath.
On the hundred-kilometer taxi ride to nainai’s house in the muddy weather, meimei falls asleep with her head on my thighs. Southern China is sweltering—the humidity coils in my lungs like a cross-legged monk. I wonder if it is this heat that dissolved father’s shell long ago. Father and the taxi driver converse in an unfamiliar dialect. Father’s voice lilts, bouncing up and down with an energy that’s staccatoed out by his accent when he speaks English or pu tong hua. At nainai’s house, meimei and I take the outside bedroom while father takes the inside bedroom. For half the day the house is occupied by silence; when I go to peek in the other bedroom father alternates between wordlessly typing on his computer and hurriedly leafing through an oncology textbook, his neck retreating into his hoodie, the light flickering off the folds like ripples of water off a turtle’s back, deflected. Nainai doesn’t disturb him, only shuffles into his room every hour to refill the glass of water on his desk. Meimei and I watch as nainai hunches over in the small kitchen, stirring a pot of shredded vegetables. At three she dispatches meimei and I to buy some spring roll wrappers, and the two of us peddle to the market street in her rusted rickshaw, returning with the wrappers, a bag of small oranges (a kind of delicacy that was formerly reserved for the emperor, nainai explains), and a bag of sesame coated hard candy wrapped in rice paper that is half empty by the time we return.
In the evening we take a taxi to the coast. There are men in straw hats wading in the slender knee-tall weeds and hauling nets impregnated with perch and shrimp and bass to the fish market. Meimei buys jello from one of the street food carts on the board- walk and the breeze sifts it and her dress in different directions as she walks. As the sunset dims father lapses into a meditative mood. “Your yeye was a fisherman, and nainai was a chemistry teach- er,” father begins, recounting the story he’s told meimei and me countless times. When you were in middle school you read all the books in the county library, meimei says. Your parents wanted you to go to college and be a doctor, I finish.
Father had left mainland two decades ago, a few years following the June 4th event. He was in medical school then, and his classmates had gone to Beijing to protest. One of his friends was arrested and imprisoned by the communists. Father’s best friend was shot and died in the hospital a week later. Father, being the scholar who was well versed in politics but never one to wet his feet in the action, had stayed home. After the incident, his adviser encouraged the cohort to flee the country.
Armed with the Chinese equivalent of his MD and a PhD in oncology, father thought he was qualified to practice medicine in America. His parents sold their house to pay for his plane ticket. Father came to the US with eighteen dollars in his pocket. For years he couldn’t afford his own house, so instead he bunked in the on-call rooms in the hospital where he did his internship.
After meeting an attractive Chinese girl on the subway and marrying her, it was clear that he was on borrowed time to pass his board exams and match into a residency program. The defining character of an honorable husband is one who supports his family, mother’d urged him. And so father began his search for a job that didn’t require another ten years of education. He applied to jobs that required MDs and PhDs, then the jobs that required master’s degrees, and finally those that required only bachelor’s degrees. “I once received an acceptance letter addressed to a guy named Viktor,” father says. “The resume was still attached. When I opened it, I saw that the guy had just gotten his bachelor’s the previous year!” He finally received an offer ten years ago, working for a marine biologist twenty years his younger with a freshly minted PhD.
“By age 40,” father laments, “it is beyond the mind to memorize and retain knowledge. Do your studying while you’re still young,” he says, shaking his head at us.
Father scattered his dreams like empty wheat husks.
Nainai is waiting for us when we return, baskets worth of food splayed over the table in the dining room that is really only large enough for two. There is steamed tilapia and spring rolls and pi pi shrimp and crabs and fish sauce. Nainai shows us how to break apart the crab, how to peel armor off the spines of the pi pi shrimp (which look like caterpillars with thick tails) and pluck away the lilac-colored meat underneath. We roll spring rolls on the bare tabletop, the wrappers so thin they are translucent. Meimei is greedy, stuffing hers so full of chicken meat and bean paste that the tail end gives way, splattering all over the table.
After dinner nainai makes father take off his jacket, and when she does, the dandruff on it snows to the floor. She chuckles and scoffs. Look at your hair, she wags her finger at his almost bald scalp with the numerable few hairs stitched upon it, can you imagine how much dandruff there’d be if you actually had hair! Nainai scrubs the jacket out by hand, and father towers over her helplessly, asking every few minutes if she needs help. Nainai instructs him to shave his nose and ear hairs.
We arrive back at the hotel the morning of the conference, the lobby brimming with people clad in suits and ties and business casual. I expect father to congregate with the zoologists, but coincidentally we discover a large poster labeled ICCR, 21st International Congress of Cancer Research set up at the opposite end of the room. Father weaves in and out of the crowds, emerging at the other side, and the people nod to him and greet, Hey, Professor Peng, or, How’s research? Are you ever planning to return to mainland? How does it feel to be a haigui? “Fine, fine, how is Xiao Long,” comes the answer, and the opportunity to confess unemployment is dismissed with a careless fling of the wrist. “These are my daughters!” and meimei and I are thrust into the spotlight as a sort of human shield against humiliation. “The eldest is getting her oncology PhD next year,” he says, gesturing to me, “and this is the youngest, she goes to the best middle school in the US.” Wow! they exclaim. You must be proud. “You two must be here for the ICCR then?” a man with wispy white eyebrows directs at father and me, and I curb my tongue to avoid unfurling father’s secret.
I think this must be the family reunion we never had, because everyone is related to father in some way. There are roommates from China, roommates from Texas, friends from New Jersey, classmates from Germany, former students from Switzerland, CEOs of successful startups and professors and PIs. Meimei and I gape in awe at the nameless relatives from months, years, decades ago, trapped in this web with father at the center by some class or mutual friend or WeChat messaging or LinkedIn connection or shared meal. “If only I’d stayed in China,” father used to sigh in private, “I surely would’ve been professor or dean.” Now, we believe him.
Father’s lecture is on amphibian development. We are split into rooms, and father’s has three presenters and some ten or twenty audience members. Meimei and I take our seats at the back of the room, and meimei doodles on a pad.
Father is the last to present. He pauses on slides, staring bleakly at the figures, “So here’s the gene expression profiling…” and “This is the western…” he rummages for the right words. At the end they pepper him with questions: How does the vitelline layer specifically affect development? or I don’t think you can use this method to determine significance, and father shrugs his shoulders mutely in reply. “It’s beyond the scope of the study,” he manages to squeeze out. “My student’s group did research on this in a previous study, you can look it up in the references.” The last comment comes from a white whiskered gentleman, who introduces himself as a Nobel prize laureate. I don’t think you can use this technique to measure mutation rate, he declares. “Mitochondrial DNA is the correct choice in this study,” I interject, and feel the piercing of a dozen pairs of eyes turn in my direction. The words skitter out of me faster and faster until they meld together, each word elevating my confidence until I am unaware of anyone else in the room. “mtDNA is maternally inherited and mutates more quickly than rRNA, which makes it suitable for the time span of interest. And hardening of the vitelline layer by pH or salinity alteration increases likelihood of mutation. It’s a previous study this group did in the paper in ref 8.” Father’s eyebrows lift in half questioning, thank you spelled within his gaze.
On the plane ride home, father remembers all the sea creatures he left behind. His favorite, he says, was the loggerhead sea turtle they rescued off the Florida coast that had lost a large piece of its shell. They were about to sacrifice the turtle, as it looked to be in quite a bit of pain, but father had told his Korean professor that he would take care of the turtle. They put the turtle in a tank with a few small white fish. In a month’s time, father found that some of the fish had latched onto the back of the turtle and was depositing a network of calcium carbonate. After about a year, before plans of 3D printing a prosthetic shell for the injured turtle could come to fruition, father discovered that the shell had grown back completely with the help of the fish. In return, the fish used the turtle as their home, burrowing in and out of the shell they helped to build.
“Oh well,” he says, sighing himself out of his sentimentality. “I guess it is time to try returning to cancer research.” Deep somewhere in his heart, I know, he must be smiling.
“Haigui” was originally conceived, as with most of my other pieces, as a micro-fiction piece. I had been struck by the use of animals as metaphors and had the idea of sketching a character study of my father as a turtle. In the finished piece I am to capture the restless yet submissive spirit both my father and mother embodied as immigrants, and I blend my parents’ and my own stories into a common history. I had spent years wrestling with that history—as a child I had staunchly rejected my own identity as a Chinese-American; out of fear; out of rebellion against my parents, of whose naïveté I was often ashamed; out of anger, for my mother’s perversion of Chinese, my beloved mother tongue. “Haigui” is an attempt to reclaim that identity and history as my own.
Rui-Yang Peng/彭瑞阳 is a student at Princeton University. She is a nihilist, biologist, visual artist, and writer, not necessarily in that order. She believes that love as we know it is nonexistent and has made peace with the fact. Her work lives online @linaria17.